Monday, April 27, 2015

Movie Review - A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) - A physics lecturer up for tenure at a small Midwestern university in the late '60s watches his life spin completely out of control.  His children have little to no use for him, while his wife boots him out to replace him with a recent widower.  His brother lives on the family couch and is filling notebooks with...something.  Meanwhile one of his students is willing to pay him a large
bribe in return for a good grade. No one seems to think that he should have a big problem with all of this, which bothers him a little.  When he turns to his rabbis for spiritual guidance they seem to have even less connection to the "real world" than he does.

I have no idea what to tell you about this movie.  So let's go with this - if you enjoy the trademark weirdness of the Coen brothers (who wrote and directed) then you'll probably find something worthwhile here.  If the Coens just set your teeth of edge then you should probably avoid this one too.  It was a nominee for a Best Movie Oscar.

It's strange, quirky, fascinating and puzzling.  Not my favorite Coen movie (a tie between "Fargo", "Oh, Brother Where Art Thou" and "The Big Lebowski") nor is it my least favorite ("Barton Fink", don't even get me started).  It was...interesting.

Rating - ***1/2 Worth A Look

Monday, April 20, 2015

Movie Review - The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep (1946) - Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called in to help settle the debts of the daughter of a wealthy man.  Seems like a simple enough case but even before he gets out of the house another daughter (Lauren Bacall) throws the first of many curve balls headed his way in this noir classic.  By the end Marlowe will be faced with murder, conspiracy, blackmail and maybe even love.

This is one of those movies that simply had no choice but to be great.  The source material is Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name.  This was the first time it was brought to the big screen.  Directing is Howard Hawke, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett contributed to the script.  Then you add in an incredible cast led by Bogart and Bacall.  They had met two years before on the set of "To Have and Have Not" when she was 19 and he was 45.  The chemistry between the two of them was impossible to ignore.  In the interim she had done a movie that had flopped ("Confidential Agent") and Warner Brothers pushed for changes in the final edit to play up that on screen chemistry.  Off screen the romance had continued to grow and shortly after the movie was released Bogie divorced his wife and married Bacall.

This is the kind of movie you need to just sit back and enjoy the ride.  The plot is filled with twists, and the script is amazingly quotable.  The convoluted story that was the subject of much derision when it first came out can still be hard to follow but in some ways that's part of its charm.

So, if I love this movie this much why does it only get a four star rating?  The down side of the script is that it is very much of its time and place.  Consequently, things that the post war audience would have understood instantly are rather obscure to the modern viewer.  It also makes the story a little clunky at times.  Some of the older movies make the transition to the modern audience with little or no trouble.  This one stumbles, just a bit.

Rating - **** Recommended 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Reviews - No Return, Analog Memory andThe Chronicles of Mark Johnson

The following books are available only as e-books as near as I can tell.

The Chronicles of Mark Johnson by Alan Place (2014) - Mark Johnson was a sought after fashion photographer who turned his back on the shallowness of that world.  Now with the help of his friends Mark chases ghosts and fights demons (sometimes his own).

The concept here is pretty good and occasionally the writing matches the ideas.  Mostly the writing is awkward and clumsy.  Just about the time that I would ready to give up Place would turn a nice phrase or carry the story forward adroitly.

In the end if you just need something short to carry you through to the next big book, you could do worse.

Rating - ** Not Impressed



Selected Short Stories Featuring Analog Memory by Nicolas Wilson (2013) - A collection of  15 short stories that are just stacked end to end.  A few pieces of nice story telling hiding among a mass of mediocrity.  A week after I finished the book I went back and looked at the Table of Contents.  Couldn't call up the story for any of the titles.

The title of the book should be a give away - overly complex and a little cutesy.  Really has the look of something that was thrown together just to have something else to sell.

Rating - ** Not Impressed



No Return by George Applegate (2013) - This is actually a short story but it's far and away the best writing of the bunch.  Set at an Earth colony on Mars that has been abandoned to its own devices after a Martian fungus invades Earth and is destroying the ecosystem.  Originally founded by a group of Muslim investors the infidel Safety Officer finds himself in a closed environment now under sharia law.  He must investigate a strange death that leads to a possible conspiracy that may reach beyond the boundaries of Mars.

Nice combination of detective and science fiction stories.  Applegate does a nice job of weaving together some very interesting threads into something that carries you right along.

Rating - *** Worth A Look


Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie Review - Gone With the Wind

Gone with the Wind (1939) - As the Civil War sweeps through the nation, southern gentility are faced with the end of the life they have known.  In the middle of it, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) collide in every manner possible.

I need to be upfront about this movie.  It has always borne the brunt of my disdain.  I've always viewed as an overblown soap opera, a romance novel blasted across the face of the screen, beloved by the corps of Scarlett O'Hara fan girls.  Over the years I had seen the entirety of the movie in bits and pieces.  What had impressed me most was the paucity of likable characters.

In short, I wasn't a fan.

Over Valentine's weekend, one of the local theaters offered it on the big screen.  The one thing that had always struck me was the visual grandeur of the movie.  Add in that my lady wife was a member of the corps of fans and the decision was pretty much made.  We would go an see the movie.  I would see it beginning to end and larger than life.

So, um, I, uh.  Well.

Wow.

It's still melodramatic romance.  A soap opera of the most operatic sort.  Turns out that that is one of the movie's greatest strengths.  It doesn't try to shy away or control the operatic sweep of the story.  "Gone with the Wind" embraces who and what it is.  If it had done anything else it would never have the staying power that this movie has shown over the decades.

It. Is. Epic.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't changed my opinion of most of the characters.  I find nothing desirable about Scarlett O'Hara.  Yes, she is Vivien Leigh and therefore stunningly beautiful.  But she turns away from every opportunity to be more than simply beautiful.  Her trademark line "I'll think about it tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day" is the perfect example of the essential shallowness of her character.  Like Rhett however, you feel that there is so much more just beneath the surface.  A fully developed Scarlett would be a woman to not only fight for but who would stand by your side with naked blade in one hand, a pistol in the other and a withering witticism on her lovely lips.

Um.

Excuse me, I seem to have gotten carried away there.

It's hard not to be.  Gable and Leigh are incredible in this movie.  Visually this movie is simply...stunning.  This is another movie that truly needs to be seen on as big a screen as you can find.  The color, the depth of the images, the (again) grand opera scale of it all make it something truly spectacular.  Three directors contributed to the making of the film, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and Sam Wood (though only Fleming gets screen credit).  It is a love letter to the beauty of  the antebellum South and plays a wonderful counterpoint to the vapid personalities who play in front of it.  All of that has the iconic soundtrack by Max Steiner.  In its entirety it is a cinematic confection almost beyond compare.

Yes, my opinion of the characters hasn't changed much.  Scarlet is Scarlett.  Rhett brings a pirate's swagger to everything he does but in the end, he's not a very nice person.  The Tarleton twins (one played by TV's Superman, George Reeves!) are airheads and the much sought after Ashley Wilkes is a whimpering shell of a man.  In fact the two best "people" here are a slave and the operator of a bordello.  Mammy, played with Oscar winning excellence, is the true soul of the O'Haras and their beloved Tara.  It is Belle Watling, operator of the local house of ill repute and played by Ona Munson, that may be the most decent person in the story.

In the end, seeing the entire movie and seeing it as it was originally intended to be viewed, made a huge difference for me.  I'm stilll not sure I'd ever want to watch it all again (the movie runs 235 minutes all told), but I do need to reassess my opinion.

Rating - **** Recommended

Monday, April 6, 2015

Movie Review - Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1926) -  F.W. Murnau's silent film classic follows a husband and wife from the country whose marriage is under attack from a sophisticate woman from the city.  She tries to get the husband to kill to clear the field for herself.

Modern film goers, especially those raised on uptempo action films, often find silent movies hard to grasp.  The tempo of the movie making is decidedly slower,  Without dialogue, the storytelling is done entirely with action, gesture and facial expression.  Given the director's dislike of dialogue cards virtually nothing is laid out for the viewer.  Silent films require a little more effort from the viewer.

Murnau has plenty to offer in return for the effort hear.  As always he brings a stunning and complex visual sense to the movie.  The tale here is of country purity versus the evils of the big city.  Janet Gaynor as "The Wife"  (the characters are designated by simple descriptive names "The Wife", "The Man", "The Woman From the City") has her long blond hair done up in braids and wears modest clothing that covers her from neck to ankles while Margaret Livingston ("The Woman From The City") has a bob haircut and her dress is barely past her knees!  The former is a young woman of simple virtue  amusements while the latter is a wild, cigarette smoking hedonist with an overt sexuality.  The morality is predictable and typical of the age.  Gaynor brings a winsome innocence to her role while George O'Brien is the lumbering provincial who is a bit swept away by all the wonder of both the city and woman trying to lure him away.

It's the visuals that are the real compelling part of the movie.  Murnau brings  a taste of German Expressionist movies to the picture but balances it nicely with a light comic touch as well.  If you any ideas that the movies of the silent era were simple things with limited artistic and technological qualities, Murnau will surprise you here.  Obviously there are no fancy CGI effects or advanced hi-tech editing techniques.  It's interesting to remember that most of the montage shots and layered effects were actually done "inside" the camera with multiple exposures.  "Sunrise" would win the only Oscar ever given for "Unique and Artistic Production" (Gaynor would also win for Leading Actress" for this and two other films.  At the time the award was for the totality of the year's work by an actor rather than a single film.  The rule would be changed just a couple years later.  Gaynor would also be the youngest winner of the award until the mid 1970s.

Some interesting trivia about the movie - Murnau stood 6'11''.  In his short career, he died at age 42, Murnau only made 21 films. Only 12 of them still survive, including "Nosferatu" which was nearly destroyed when he lost the legal battle over the main character with the estate of Bram Stoker.  This was the first movie to use Fox's sound on film technique known as "Movietone", making one of the first movies with its own dedicated soundtrack.  Unfortunately, it came out in the months just after "The Jazz Singer" and audiences now demanded the ability to hear the actors speak. In its time the movie was considered a bit of a failure, only later to be judged a masterpiece. "Sunrise" is not entirely without spoken dialogue.  There are some spoken words in the sound effects when O'Brien and Gaynor are kissing in the middle of the street while in the city.  As much as the movie looks like it was shot on location, the entire film was done on the studio lot and sound stages.

Set aside any preconceptions you may have about silent films and allow the story to be told the way it  was told in 1927.  You'll be rewarded for the effort.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review - Jefferson Davis - The Man And His Hour

Jefferson Davis - The Man And His Hour by William C. Davis (1991) - A detailed biography of the man who was "the face" of the Confederate States of America.  The author follows Davis from birth to his final breath and examines the events that shaped the man who became the center of the Civil War for the South.

Having moved to Richmond, VA in 2014 I am surrounded with an enormous portion of American History.  From the early English settlement at Jamestown, Williamsburg, the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 to the Civil War, all are within just a few hours drive for me now.  But Richmond holds a special place in our history, as the capital of those states who either seceded or rebelled depending on your historical point of view.  There are some great historical sites in the city that brought a new, deeper understanding of this great conflict.  When I saw a copy of this biography at a recent rummage sale I grabbed it.

Growing up in the north there is very little attention paid to Jefferson Davis.  There is the inevitable photograph of him, thin and dour looking, a man easy to cast in the role of the villain.  A more mature understanding of history teaches you that the truth is more complex.

Complex is a great word to describe Jefferson Finis Davis.  His middle name showed his parents hope that he would be their final child.  His father was an emotionally distant father who would establish Davis's relationship with most people for the rest of his life.  A hero in the Mexican War. Plantation owner.  United States Senator.  Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.  Only President of the Confederate States of America.  The story of Jefferson Davis is a fascinating one and William C. Davis does a remarkable job of detailing that life.

In the end it is clear that President Davis would play a pivotal role in the eventual loss by the South in the Civil War.  Only the most devout partisan believes that the Confederacy had any chance to win its independence.  Their greatest chance was the one that many believed most devoutly in, King Cotton.  When the great European powers (England and France) did not respond to that appeal the outcome of the war was sealed.  It was no longer a matter of what the outcome would be but of when that outcome would arrive.  In retrospect it becomes clear that the greatest obstacle to southern independence was the dedication to the concept of the individual state over the nation.  The South was simply not able to create a cohesive "national" concept at the moment when it was most desperately needed.  Jefferson Davis was not the man for that moment.

Davis was burdened with some of the same challenges as his opponent, a man he despised, Abraham Lincoln.  Both were harassed by Congressional critics.  Both had to deal with incompetent generals in the Army.  Both had contentious and turbulent Cabinets.  The difference was that Lincoln was more gifted in interpersonal relations, working to find compromises that allowed the Union to move forward.  He was also willing to replace generals when they failed to perform.  Davis failed at both these tasks.

Emotionally reserved, he was seen as aloof and never showed any talent for "winning friends and influencing people".  Once Davis made up his mind on an issue that was it.  He had a certitude that bordered on a siege mentality.  To disagree with him was to fall almost instantly out of favor.  Once out of favor, again, his mind could not be changed.  That certitude, when combined with his enormous loyalty to his friends, created huge problems when naming commanders of the Army.  Friends like Leonidas Polk were retained in commands long after proving their incompetence to lead.  Davis the author notes that while Davis the President had a great ability to judge his opponents he was virtually tone deaf when it came time to do likewise with those close to him.  Jefferson Davis's attention to detail resulted all too often with "paralysis by analysis".

In the end, you wind up with a nuanced understanding of the man who went from being the leading voice for states rights prior to the war to being the voice of southern nationalism.  As he did with all things, Jefferson Davis gave his every ounce of energy and intellect to those jobs.

The only President of the Confederate States of America is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, just a 20 minute drive from my home.  I'll be stopping by to pay my respects when the weather warms.

Rating : **** Recommended

Monday, March 30, 2015

Movie Reviews - Free Movie Weekend

When I first got cable TV I immediately discovered that while have 30-50 channels (oh, back in the day) was really cool, what was TRULY amazing were the free weekends from the movie channels.  Showtime and HBO and Cinemax would throw open the doors to the kingdom for 2-3 days and you could watch all kinds of cool things!  That's how I, and a great many other people, discovered the movie "Eddie and the Cruisers", for example.  Today it's usually a way for me to catch up on some more recent movies that I missed in the theaters.

A little while back I got the chance to score a whole series of movies with my new DVR feature from my buddies at Dish Network.

Transcendence (2014) - I was all set to love this film.  The story of a man's consciousness being transferred into a supercomputer with Johnny Depp playing the lead.  But it never quite comes together for me.  The story is awkward and lurches a bit, the characters never quite come together.  It's an interesting movie that leaves you think "If only...".

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Gravity (2013) - I've heard all the scientific complaints with this movie and agree that a lot of it is just painfully wrong.  But that misses the point for me.  This was an edge of your seat thrill ride of a movie.  I really wish I'd seen it on the big screen because it would have been so much better at a more appropriate scale.  George Clooney and Sandra Bullock have to carry all 91 minutes of this film on their own and they are astounding.  Of all the movies from this weekend, this was the one that blew me away.  And a great reminder to Hollywood that movies don't have to be three hours long.

Rating - **** Recommended

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - The story of Walt Disney(Tom Hanks) bringing the story of Mary Poppins to the big screen with the reluctant help of her creator P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).  As someone who was glued to the TV Sunday evenings for "The Wonderful World of Color" I grew up with Walt Disney in my living room.  So I approached this with a certain trepidation.  Hanks does a wonderful job, as does Thompson, in creating real people for these legendary characters.  Did not quite know what to expect and was utterly charmed and enthralled by the movie (even if I'm not a huge fan of the Mary Poppins movie itself)

Rating - **** Recommended

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) - Loosely based on the life of an actual butler at the White House, what's not to love about this movie?  Great cast (Forrest Whittaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave and another handful of quality actors), a great script, beautifully directed by Lee Daniels (his name is included in the title not from directorial ego but because of an asinine dispute with a movie studio over a film made three generations ago) and just generally outstanding.

Rating - **** Recommended


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

From My Shelves - Cartoon - In The Living Room

Cartoon - In the Living Room (1996) - It's so easy to think that all the great music in the world gets its due.  That simply creating something truly wonderful is all you need to find fame and fortune.  The reality is that all too often the fame and fortune go to people creating stuff that is safe, predictable and ultimately forgettable.  The problem is that until very recently the chance of you finding any of those wonderful, working musicians of the world who are creating in relative anonymity has been very hard.

Unless you had a friend who said, "Hey, listen to this".

My very good friend Tom introduced me to a band he worked with in State College, PA called Cartoon. While I absolutely trusted Tom's judgement when it came to music (some of my favorites were groups he had turned me on to before) I spent a lot of time listening to mediocre music as part of my work in radio.  Even bands that were very good in person sometimes didn't translate well when recorded.

I should have known better.

It was the kind of close harmony, folk inspired music that I have loved all my life.  The  song writing was superb, the performances flawless and the recording was top quality.  These were dedicated, quality artists producing the kind of work they loved and a dedicated band of fans made them perennial regional favorites in central PA and beyond.

The first time I listened I was delighted.  Then there was the second, and third, and fourth and beyond.  I've lost track of how many times I've listened to this CD.  It's on the short list of go-to music when I want to hear the stuff I love, the stuff that brings me joy.

Personal favorites are Lady Jamaica, Carolina One Time, (I Shall Carry) Water, Catalog Lady, and Let the Radio Play.  That's a nice cross section of the style and the sense of humor that made Cartoon the crowd favorite for so long.  Oh, and if you pay attention you'll even hear Tom's voice on one cut.  I'll let you discover that one for yourself.

Sadly, at least for their fans, Cartoon has retired.  Their final performance was in 2012, appropriately at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (article and interview here).  After 32 years it was time to move on.  I can understand that and respect it.

Just as long as I can keep playing this favorite album recording.  Cartoon's music is still available through BandCamp at the link at the very top of this post.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Movie Review - On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - Secret Agent 007, James Bond (George Lazenby) finds himself drawn into a "salvage mission" to try and help the troubled adult daughter of a Corsican criminal boss.  As he and Tracie (Diana Rigg) discover the beginnings of a real romance, Bond continues his hunt of his arch-enemy Blofeld (Telly Savalas), who is trying to bring the world economy to its knees.

This is the "other" Bond.  Not Connery, not the dreadful "pretty boy" Bonds of Brosnan and Moore, nor the rather flat but adequate Dalton and certainly not the true "blunt instrument" Bond of Daniel Craig.  George Lazenby is the only movie actor to take on Bond in a non-comedy version who appears in only a single movie (David Niven took a comic turn as an aging 007 in the 1967 version of Casino Royale).  I have been a Bond fan since I was a pre-teen.  I've read all the original books, seen most of the movies (the exceptions were otherwise all in the Brosnan/Moore years), and consider myself a little bit of a purist.  For me the best Bond remains Sean Connery.  He brings a deadly edge to the character even as he tosses of the terse quip and fondles the Bond girls (his Bond Girls are also the best as well).  I will grant that Daniel Craig has really done a fabulous job of expressing the deadly aspect of 007.  It should never be forgotten that what makes Bond special is his "license to kill".  It is in one of John Gardner's continuation novels where Secret Service head "M" says that there are times when Her Majesty's government requires a "blunt instrument".  Connery and Craig bring that aspect through with the greatest effect.

Lazenby isn't bad, however.  I'd put him in the Timothy Dalton middle ground with Lazenby perhaps just a bit a head.

This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, which is one of my personal favorites.  This is the book where we see greater depth of character for Bond.  He's tired, nearly mentally defeated as the story begins but finds new things to stir his blood as time goes on.  His discovery of a woman with a sense of adventure that could match his own in Tracie takes him somewhere unexpected.  Savalas is underwhelming as Blofeld, made even worse by the modern parody of "Dr. Evil" from the "Austin Powers" movies.  On the whole they did a very nice job until the very end.  They stayed faithful to the ending (a personal favorite again) but it fell flat in Lazenby's hands.  Unfortunate.

This movie actually did very well at the box office.  Lazenby's reviews have been decidedly mixed over the years.  Some folks rank even below the "pretty boys" which is criminal in my opinion.  Lazenby believed that the secret agent genre was a dead issue in the more liberated '70s and declined to continue in the role.  That's truly unfortunate given what followed for 30 years.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review - Closure (A Jack Randall Thriller)

Closure - Randall Wood  (2013) - FBI Agent Jack Randall finds himself assigned to a high profile case in a very peculiar manner, by the killer.  High profile people are being killed with frightening efficiency across the country.  It's clear that it's all the same killer but finding the connections is a challenge.  From New York City to the deserts of Nevada with many stops in between  Randall is constantly one step behind the vigilante killer and forced to face some of his own personal history.

If you like classic thriller novels put this one on your list.  Wood does a great job of creating believable characters, putting them in a fleshed out story and then slamming his foot down on the accelerator.   It's been a while since I have been as wholly pleased by a thriller novel as I was with this one.  The kind of book that makes you resent the need for sleep.

Yeah, I liked it.

I will admit that right at the end I realized I had one major chunk of uncomfortable I had to deal with along the way.  The "bad guy" is a vigilante, someone who has decided to take justice into his own hands.  That's not a spoiler since Wood follows both sides of the story and the motivation is pretty clear from very early on.  What the author has done that is quite clever is to make this a triangular story.  It's not good guys versus bad guys.  The very clear "bad guys" are the people getting killed.  The greatest weakness in the story is that the victims are cardboard cutouts.  They aren't really human, they have no depth and no nuance.  They're just scum, so you don't really mind when they get killed.  The other two sides are the vigilante and the FBI team Randall is leading.

There is a cathartic aspect to the vigilante's mission.  In the end all we really want is for the REALLY bad guys to get what's coming to them.  Unfortunately, if we raise the vigilante to the role of hero, the very fabric of civilization is torn.  We are no longer a society of laws.  There's no good ending to that story.

I think I know where Randall Wood may come down on that discussion.  But you know, I can't say I'm sure.  He made me think, he made me uncomfortable with how I felt sometimes about the characters and what they did.

And that's called good writing.

If the victims had been more like actual 3D people, "Closure" would be damn near perfect.  I'll keep my eyes open for Agent Randall in the future.

Rating - **** Recommended